In this chapter, Jonathan leads the people to win a great victory over the Philistines.
This is a fairly long chapter with a couple of stories, but the essence of it is contained in v. 6: “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few.” This is the same principle that we found when the LORD guided Gideon to defeat the Midianites in Judges 7:2 and 7:4. In those verses the LORD specifically asked Gideon to reduce the size of his army to prevent the Israelites from boasting in their own strength. In this case Jonathan goes out with just one man, so a reduction in force is not required of him. Jonathan finds success comparable to Gideon: while Jonathan only kills 20 men, his actions spark a panic in the Philistine army, causing them to not just run in fear, but to actually strike each other down in the confusion. The fear is the most important part, however, as it permits the Israelite army to run down and massacre the fleeing Philistines without resistance, even though Israel is outnumbered and generally lacks weaponry.
Apart from the similarities to Gideon’s victory, I also think it’s interesting to observe the contrast between Jonathan and Saul. Saul, who has alienated Samuel, and whose army is melting away in fear, is left passively sitting under a pomegranate tree while Jonathan goes out to attack the Philistine outpost. Recall that in the prior chapter it was Jonathan who attacked the Philistine outpost at Geba. Even after Jonathan goes to challenge the Philistines he says that the sign of the LORD’s favor would be if he and his armorbearer were to climb up and attack the Philistines, rather than passively wait for the Philistines to come down and attack them. Jonathan is marked not just by his faith, but also by his aggressiveness against the Philistines and in the face of superior numbers and tactical disadvantage (climbing up on your hands and feet is not ideal when attacking a large garrison that sees you coming).
We can see how hapless Saul appears when Jonathan is out winning the battle and Saul doesn’t even know that he is gone. Further, after Jonathan is gone and Saul figures out something is up, his first reaction is to consult with the priest Ahijah. In all fairness, I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing to do; I simply point it out to highlight a pattern of differences between Saul and Jonathan. Jonathan goes out to attack the Philistines and insists that the LORD might save through them, while Saul remains deliberating in the midst of a great victory.
Of course, it would have been better if Saul had consulted the priest before offering a sacrifice on his own initiative. I’m not sure if consulting a priest now demonstrates a change of heart on his behalf, or simply indecisiveness. Regardless, Saul only pauses for a little while before assembling to attack, and that concludes the first half of this chapter.
The second half of the story centers around Saul’s oath and how it affects Israel’s ability to chase down and kill the fleeing Philistines. There are several aspects of this story I find interesting, which I will address in turn.
First, Saul is under no compulsion to issue this oath. Like the Nazirite vow of Num 6, what Saul does is issue a “voluntary oath”, and even going a step further, he binds other people under his oath. More than anything else, I wonder why. Why did Saul do this? I really don’t know. Was it out of humility, an admission of their weakness and dependence on the LORD? Or was it out of pride, because Saul considered his vengeance on “his enemies” more important than anything else? Is Saul being singleminded and focused on revenge over everything else? Why is Saul talking about “[avenging] myself on my enemies” when he is supposed to be the king over the LORD’s people and defeating the LORD’s enemies? He seems very focused on himself, his own problems, his own enemies. Even if we can suppose that Saul makes this oath for the right reason, its practical effects are obvious: it hinders his forces in their pursuit of the Philistines and permits at least some of their army to escape. Jonathan himself points this out in v. 29-30.
Second, honey oozing out of the ground is a striking “coincidence”. It should be obvious that honey doesn’t normally ooze out of the ground (v. 25-26), just like honey doesn’t normally flow out of a lion’s corpse (Judges 14:8). The honey that flowed out of the lion was ceremonially unclean, and thus was a trap to Samson. The honey that flowed out of the ground, however, would have been a blessing to the exhausted men, who could have eaten and chased down their long-time oppressors. The blessing was turned into a temptation by the oath of Saul, as the men had to restrain themselves from eating it. But the thing I want to point out is that the honey is not natural.
Third, Jonathan eats the honey without being aware of his father’s oath, yet it appears to count as a “violation” of the oath. I think this is interesting because in most cases, the violation of an oath requires some degree of intentionality. Violating the Law implies intentionality because all of Israel is expected to be familiar with the Law. In the case of Nazirite vows (from Num 6), if someone “dies suddenly” in the presence of a Nazirite, the vow isn’t broken, but the Nazirite has to shave off his hair and start over again. In other cases (such as eating unclean food) we could imagine people becoming ceremonially unclean without knowing it. This happens in e.g. Judges 14:9 when Samson feeds honey taken from a lion’s carcass to his parents. This is a difficult situation because they wouldn’t even know they had to make atonement. In this case, Jonathan violates his father’s oath without knowing it. Who is at fault here? Jonathan or his father? I don't have a particular opinion, but I think it's interesting.
Fourth, the men “pounce on the plunder”, as they are driven by great hunger, and in their haste eat animals with the blood still in them. This is a violation of the Law, so Saul “builds an altar” by rolling over a stone, and has people slaughter their captured animals on the stone (allowing the blood to flow down out of the dying animal). “It was the first time” Saul had built an altar (v. 35), which should give us a second insight into his (lack of) faith in the LORD. The first insight was back in 1 Samuel 10 when people asked “is Saul also among the prophets?” Even apart from Samuel’s criticism in 1 Samuel 13, we can tell from these stories that Saul is not particularly devoted to the LORD. It's quite a contrast to Abraham, who seemed to build an altar everywhere he went.
Fifth, after the oath is broken, the LORD stops speaking to Saul. What this shows is that no matter what Saul intended or whether his oath was the right thing to do, the LORD was going to hold him accountable for what he said. Even when the violator was someone else, someone unaware of the oath, the LORD “did not answer him that day” as a result of the “sin” (v. 37-38). Perhaps this is why the book of Numbers spoke at such length about what kinds of vows and in what situations they are considered binding (Num 30). In this case, the violation of Saul’s oath is almost like the same sort of thing as Achan’s sin (Joshua 7), where in both cases the sin of an individual results in some sort of corporate punishment for the whole army. But it's also interesting because the implication is that before this, the LORD would speak to Saul, in spite of Saul's previous mistakes and sins.
Sixth, Saul insists that Jonathan should die after he is found to be the oathbreaker, but “the men” pressure Saul into letting him live. Again, this kind of raises the question of whether Jonathan is at fault, when he was unaware at the time he broke the oath. Saul made the oath in haste or wrath, Jonathan broke it, so who is ultimately responsible? Saul insists that Jonathan should die for what he has done, but the army supports Jonathan so Saul capitulates to popular pressure. Saul’s behavior is not inspiring my confidence. In the beginning he was striking the enemies of the LORD after “the Spirit of God came upon him in power” (1 Sam 11:6). Then he offered a sacrifice to try to rally the army to fight against the Philistines. Now he threatens to kill his own son after Jonathan brings a great deliverance to Israel against the Philistines.
This is a troubling development. As the book of Samuel progresses, we will see Saul progressively deteriorate into a worse and worse leader, but even now we can see him beginning to make eratic and poor decisions.